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Inside The East With Filmmakers Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij

Jun. 17th, 2013 | Comments 0 | Make a Comment   
Stories From Inside <i>The East</i> With Filmmakers Brit Marlin
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
The East is an engaging eco-terrorism espionage thriller that has everything going for it: a fantastic cast, thought-provoking script, and most importantly, a beating heart at the core. Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij wrote the film together (in which Marling stars and Batmanglij directs), using their own experiences and societal concerns to drive the mystery towards its conclusion. Full of poetry and nuance, The East imbues our societal breakdown with hope just as much as they do with accountability, forcing us to question the world we complacently live in.



This environmentalist character piece follows Sarah Moss (Marling), an ex-F.B.I agent working for a private intelligence firm (run by the fantastic Patricia Clarkson) who gets assigned to infiltrate an eco-terrorist cell called the East. The organization follows an eye-for-an-eye belief system and targets companies who knowingly pollute the planet — if you're the CEO of a company who dumps oil in the sea, the East has something to say about it. Full of dynamic and personable members, the East causes Sarah to grow close with them on a level not found in standard societies, which starts changing her priorities.
 Stories From Inside <i>The East</i> With Filmmakers Br
Photo Credit Helga Esteb | Shutterstock


Marling and Batmanglij have known each other for years and The East isn't the first time they worked together professionally; they also wrote 2011's Sound of My Voice together, with Marling starring and Batmanglij directing again. Unlike many writing partners who lay out plots on index cards and dry erase boards — at least that's what you see in the movies — the duo doesn't actually write anything until the end of their writing process. "Let's say The East took nine months to write, we didn't sit at the actual laptop with final draft open until six weeks before the end of that nine months. We don’t write until the very […] end," explains Batmanglij.

"We think of it as more of a storytelling process. It's verbal but you're [also] looking to get the dance in your partner's eye. You know, like when their eyes light up and they lean in," adds the director. The story has to work in a verbal form before they ever write it down, making sure it flows and engages first. Once they know the story and characters inside and out, only then do they begin to write, adding on little details that make it all come alive. "We should be able to sit here and either one of us be able to tell you the story from start to finish for an hour and a half and have you guys in total rapt attention," says Batmanglij. "If we can't do that then it's never going to be a movie someone's going to pay money to go see."
 Stories From Inside <i>The East</i> With Filmmakers Br
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight


Their process may be unusual but their films prove that it works for them. Together they have written some of the most engaging characters I've ever seen onscreen, full of subtleties that make them human and flawed. It helps that they have an amazing cast bringing their story to life. Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsg?rd (to name a few) bring subtle ferocity and emotion to their story, giving the audience believable and familiar characters. One of Page's scenes in which her character Izzy confronts her corporate father is a stunning portrayal of how in a split moment of fear for a loved one, everything can to be turned upside-down...no matter how deep your convictions run.

The story for The East was inspired specifically by a summer adventure Marling and Batmanglij embarked on in 2009. For months, the friends hopped trains, dumpster dived, and hung out with those on the fringes of society. "The funny thing about that summer is that it's still unpacking inside of us. We didn't come out of it found, or being found," says Batmanglij.
 Stories From Inside <i>The East</i> With Filmmakers Br
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight


Marling channeled the experience into writing engaging female characters rarely seen in films today. Instead of approaching the female journey as linear, moving from question to answer, Marling sees it as more elliptical. "You keep going back around almost like a stake in the ground and you keep circling a moment in time, trying to make sense of it," explains Marling. "That summer was definitely a moment in time and I think we've been circling it for a while trying to unravel all the richness of what was there."

Their characters are never confined to a specific role and are instead allowed to transform from one scene to the next, playing with audience expectations as to who they are. "We liked the idea of those transformations and the play of identity, and how much you feel you know about somebody based on what they're wearing, whether they've shaven, and how they're doing their hair. It's crazy we make so many predictions about who that person is based on their physical presentation," reflects Marling.
 Stories From Inside <i>The East</i> With Filmmakers Br
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight


A shabby group of eco-activists turn out to be a fiercely loyal family that uses biblical parables as an initiation of sorts for entry into the group. The parable depicts heaven and hell as identical banquet tables with feasts presented to diners in chains. The difference resides in how people feed themselves, with those in hell going for it alone, faces in the bowls, and those in heaven using their mouths to hold spoons to feed each other. To show the story instead of tell it, the filmmakers put the cast in straightjackets and had them act it out in one of the film's most engaging moments.

It's always been important to the duo to give the female gaze central focus in their films, reflecting the types of strong, entitled, and sexy women we see in our daily lives. Sarah Moss isn't the only character worth mentioning that they wrote together — in Sound of My Voice Marling and Batmanglij crafted Maggie, a cult leader. In writing Maggie, they got to ask themselves what a female cult leader (an unseen concept in film) would look like. "We would talk about it; how does she lure people in? Is it because she's like an ingénue, sort of innocent, and people tumble into her Venus trap? Is it because she's sort of intense and domineering? How does a woman hold a group's attention?" asks Marling.
 Stories From Inside <i>The East</i> With Filmmakers Br
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight


The two films both involved the concept of infiltration, with someone going undercover in a foreign group and having their preconceived notions changed in some way. In The East, the group seen happens to be one targeting large corporations over the touchy subject of environmental pollution. "The pharmaceutical is based on a real pharmaceutical and people take it and they end up in wheelchairs. Young triathletes, young mothers, take a couple pills of this commonly prescribed antibiotic and have their lives devastated," says Batmanglij on the driving center of the film.
 Stories From Inside <i>The East</i> With Filmmakers Br
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight


However, unlike most films that pick a side and stick with it, creating a firm division between right and wrong, The East approaches the issue with a moral ambiguity. The polluters are confronted with their crimes and forced to face repercussions, while the audience is brought to feel sympathy and pity for them regardless of their evil acts. Marling and Batmanglij represent them as deeply flawed people — almost like children ignoring the consequences of their actions until they can't anymore. "We just want someone to be held accountable for that," says Batmanglij. "But then, once you act out the fantasy, maybe your own eye-for-an-eye eco-activist group that does hold them accountable, you start feeling bad for the person, the kid, who's being taught the lesson."
 Stories From Inside <i>The East</i> With Filmmakers Br
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight


"I think that because even the person running the corporation is still a person and is probably a deeply feeling person. A lot of what's so strange about the structure is just the remove. I think anyone who is confronted with a four year old boy who has been taking in so much arsenic through the tap water that he's developing tumors in his brain is going to crumble at the sight of that and is going to be somehow changed," remarks Marling. "But things are designed to keep those people apart and so there is something interesting about creating situations in which they have to come together. Of course how could you not be impacted if someone said, 'These are the results of your actions'?"
 Stories From Inside <i>The East</i> With Filmmakers Br
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight


Instead of creating a movie that shows anarchists or corporations as good or evil, the filmmakers wanted to show that the actual problem is the system. "As you even try to hold people accountable, to make them go through exactly what they made other people go through, it doesn’t even work so you know that there is no justice — if justice is literally doing that. You kill my family, you're going to get killed. That is justice, right? There is no justice anymore in our world and I think that shows that our system is really broken and I think that's what we were interested in showing," says Batmanglij.

While eco-terrorism propels the plot forward, The East truly succeeds because of the calm moments in-between, the shining examples of first-rate writing, directing, and acting. If Sarah is correct when she says, "I'm unexpected. Being unexpected is the only advantage that matters," Marling and Batmanglij definitely have the advantage in Hollywood, a place where films are often easily forgotten once the credits roll.
 Stories From Inside <i>The East</i> With Filmmakers Br
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

 Stories From Inside <i>The East</i> With Filmmakers Br
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

 Stories From Inside <i>The East</i> With Filmmakers Br
Photo Credit Helga Esteb | Shutterstock

 Stories From Inside <i>The East</i> With Filmmakers Br
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

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